Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said on Tuesday that he "will not interfere in judicial rulings," following an Egyptian court's verdict on Monday that found three Al-Jazeera journalists guilty of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood — deemed a terrorist group after the takedown of former President Mohamed Morsi. The court sentenced two of the journalists to seven years in prison and one to 10 years.
"We must respect judicial rulings and not criticize them even if others do not understand this," the president said in a televised speech.
Secretary of State John Kerry responded to Monday’s decision by asking the country’s foreign minister to register his “serious displeasure” with the “chilling and draconian verdict.” But his mild condemnation came barely a day after he met with Sisi in Cairo at which point the newly elected military leader gave him "a very strong sense of his commitment [to] a re-evaluation of human rights legislation [and] a re-evaluation of the judicial process." Kerry then reassured Sisi that the US would "get on track" with the its $1.3 billion aid package — part of a (on average) $2 billion aid package Egypt has received from the US every year since the country signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979 — and promised to send Apache helicopters for use against militants in the restless Sinai peninsula that borders Israel.
"The Apaches will come, and they will come very, very soon," Kerry said.
Egypt's military junta has shown increasing disregard for basic human rights, first targeting the Muslim Brotherhood and sentencing hundreds to death for their support of democratically elected and later deposed President Morsi, then implementing a "protest law" that bans public assembly without police permission, and going after journalists and activists — effectively snuffing out dissenting voices "across the political spectrum."
Monday's verdict has been slammed internationallly, with the United Nations warning of "a risk that miscarriage of justice is becoming the norm in Egypt." The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has said that "the trial was almost farcical," and "the verdict had nothing to do with the law. It's a transparently politicized result, in which the [Qatar-based] Al-Jazeera journalists have become pawns in conflict with Qatar over its support for the Muslim Brotherhood."
According to the court, Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohammed are guilty of fabricating reports, in support of the Brotherhood, with the aim of destabilizing the country’s security.
While Australian journalist Greste and Canadian-Egyptian journalist Fahmy were handed seven year terms, Egyptian Baher Mohammed was given 10 years, for “possession of ammunition — a reference to a spent shell he picked up from protests as a souvenir,” the Associated Press reported.
At the culmination of a five-month hearing, Amnesty International called the trial a “sham” and the verdict “a dark day for media freedom in Egypt.”
There were another 17 defendants on trial alongside the three, seven of which were journalists, and the remaining 10 students accused of supplying information to the journalists. Three international reporters — Sue Turton and Dominic Kane of Al-Jazeera and Rena Netjes, of the Dutch newspaper Parool — were sentenced in absentia to 10 years.
Al Anstey, managing director of Al Jazeera English, said Egyptian authorities should be “held to account by the global community,” adding that “to have detained them for 177 days is an outrage. To have sentenced them defies logic, sense, and any semblance of justice.”
Most of the evidence presented by prosecutors, which they claimed would prove the journalists had fabricated footage in order to undermine Egypt's security, has been called “irrelevant” to the case.
“Random videos” collected mostly from Greste’s equipment made up the bulk of evidence, including footage from previous assignments in Africa, videos of animals, photos of Greste’s parents, a Gotye song, a report on a veterinary hospital in Cairo and another on Christianity in Egypt.
Prosecutors also presented footage of clashes between police forces and pro-Morsi protesters — with no indication of manipulation — and “cited as evidence leaflets that the three had picked up at the protests.”
The journalist’s lawyers, who repeatedly complained about not having access to the prosecution’s evidence, were allegedly asked to pay $100,000 to see it.
In the end, Amnesty International observer Philip Luther said in a statement, “not a shred of evidence was found to support the extraordinary and false charges against them.”
Both the British and Dutch foreign ministers have summoned Egyptian ambassadors, while Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said she was “deeply dismayed that any sentence was imposed,” and was “appalled by the severity of it.”
Egyptian authorities have reminded the defendants, as well as the international community, that the journalists are able to appeal the decision. It is expected that they will.
There are at least 14 journalists jailed in Egypt, according to data collected by the Committee to Protect Journalists. More than 65 reporters have been detained — and most released — since Morsi’s ouster last July.
Just last week, two Egyptian journalists were released from prison. Abdullah al-Shami, also an Al-Jazeera reporter who had been jailed without charge, was set free on Tuesday due to the deterioration of his health from a hunger strike, and Al-Masder reporter Karim Shalaby, was let go on Monday after being acquitted of protesting illegally.
"Egypt's newly elected president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, has an opportunity to reverse the drastic decline in the country's press freedom record by doing all he can to ensure that journalists are set free from jail," CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa Coordinator, Sherif Mansour said. "Releasing all imprisoned journalists and allowing them to report freely and safely would be a resounding signal that Egypt is changing course."
Egypt made it onto the CPJ’s 2013 Risk List, which ranks countries in which press freedom is declining.
The Freedom House 2014 Freedom of the Press report, which was released last month, also said Egypt’s press freedom is in decline, suffering one of the worst setbacks in the entire region, where 74 percent of countries are deemed “not free” and only five percent “free.” In 2013, the country’s press freedom score fell below what it was in the last few years of former President Hosni Mubarak’s regime.
Eleven journalists have been killed in Egypt between 1992 and 2014, according to CPJ. Of the 11, only one was recorded for 1992, the rest of the killings took place between February 2011 and March 2014 — all cases were treated with 100 percent impunity. Last year was the worst yet, with 6 of 11 journalists killed just in 2013 and at least five imprisoned.
Globally, data collected by the Committee to Protect Journalists shows that 1,057 journalists have been killed since 1992 — 17 so far in 2014. Eighty-eight percent of the murder cases were treated with complete impunity, while only five percent saw “full justice.” Two hundred and eleven journalists were imprisoned in 2013 and 456 have been exiled since 2008.